Biometric passport from the beginning of this week

As from 29th August, 2006 only biometric passports accompanied with electronic chips will be issued in Hungary as well. For the time being, only a biometric photo will be stored in the passport.

Why the need for biometric passports?

Due to the war on terrorism the United States now requires a biometric passport from all non-visa liable countries. (Hungarian citizens require a visa when traveling to the USA.) In order to remain in the visa free category the instructions of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) were provided as a guideline. This includes the requirement of a passport containing a digital photo and a magnetic chip card. Partly due to American pressure and partly to European security and immigration considerations, the European Council declared the necessity for a standardized approach regarding the documents of Third World citizens, EU citizens’ passports and biometric identifiers (distinctive physical features of individuals) and biometric information needed for the new data systems. The declaration lead to the drafting of EC regulation 2252/2004. According to this, all EU passports and travel documents must contain biometric identifiers and hence a trustworthy bond between the document and its genuine owner will thus be created.

The Council also set up a body made up of specialists from various member states and assigned it the task of providing technical solutions for the project. The body published requirements in regards to digital photos in passports in February, 2005 which should have been achieved by member states by August 28, 2006. Rules relating to fingerprinting were made public on June 28, 2006. According to this, EU travel documents must contain two fingerprints. Member states have until June 28, 2009 to fulfill this requirement. Fingerprinting regulations are unique in the respect that according to international requirements (ICAO) only a digital photo is obligatory while fingerprinting remains an option. The EU is the first to enforce such an act.
The firm stance EU security leaders have taken is illustrated by the fact that the debate for a long time now has not been about whether or not to enforce fingerprinting regulations in passports, but what the age limit should be for taking fingerprints from individuals. In order for the strategy to work, each and every border crossing for air, ground and sea traffic has to be equipped with special decoding equipment. At present, only EU member states will have access to biometric data but the list may be augmented.

According to the initial proposals visas were to contain biometric identifiers as well, however for technical reasons this was unattainable since a passport with a magnetic chip containing a visa also containing a magnetic chip may lead to mutual malfunctioning.
The EU decree is applicable in Hungarian law since the 29th August, 2006. Due to this the law regarding traveling abroad (12th decree, 1998) has been altered in various points. Except for private passports valid for a period of less than 12 months, all passports will contain storage units containing biometric identifiers. The authorities are only authorized to handle the data up to the issuing of the passport, after that they are obliged to delete them without delay therefore there will be no federal registry of our biometric data.(Even Border Patrol will only have direct “read access” to the storage unit) Validity of existing passports will not be effected by the lack of biometric data, whatsmore those who wish to remain up to date need not worry either: the State will replace all travel documents free of charge on request.

HCLU requested information regarding the costs of the new practice from the Ministry of Home Affairs which was once responsible for drafting the new regulations (today it is within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Police). They refused to answer our questions citing the public procurement law 2003, no.129, paragraph 29, which states that public procurement laws may be kept confidential if they include information elementary to national security.

The presumably pretty expensive implementation of new technical equipment had already become questionable before the regulation came into effect: computer-system specialist Lukas Grunvald announced at a conference in early August that he had managed to break into the code of the new German biometric passport which is made according to the same technical standards as its Hungarian counterpart. He also explained that this is true of all biometric passports around the World since all are made according to ICAO standards.

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